Think Out Loud

Pamplin Media Group sells sells two dozen Oregon papers, while EO Media Group downsizes

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 5, 2024 12:03 a.m. Updated: June 5, 2024 7:50 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, June 5

The Pamplin Media Group announced Monday that the Portland Tribune and two dozen of its other local newspapers in Oregon had been sold to Mississippi-based Carpenter Media Group. As reported in Willamette Week, Ross Island Sand & Gravel, part of R.B. Pamplin Corp., has been under fire for its failure to refill the cavernous hole it dug while mining the Willamette River bottom from 1926 to 2001. The R.B. Pamplin Corp., which has a variety of business holdings, had been struggling financially for some time.


On the same day, EO Media Group, which runs 15 family-owned newspapers from Enterprise to Astoria, announced it would be cutting staff and looking into new ownership. We discuss these developments and their possible implications with Brent Walth, a long time investigative reporter who now teaches journalism and runs the Catalyst program at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. It has been a very dramatic week for the newspaper business in Oregon. On Monday, the Pamplin Media Group announced it was selling its entire roster of papers ‒ two dozen of them, including the Portland Tribune ‒ to a company based in Mississippi. The same day, EO Media Group, which runs 15 family owned newspapers from Enterprise to Astoria, announced it would be laying off staff, cutting many print versions and looking into new ownership. Brent Walth joins us to talk about all of this. He is a longtime investigative reporter in Oregon who now teaches journalism and runs the Catalyst Program at the University of Oregon. Brent, welcome back.

Brent Walth: Dave, thanks for having me.

Miller: You were actually connected in your own way to the creation of the Pamplin newspaper empire. So take us back. Can you remind us about the reporting that you did for the Oregonian starting in 1998?

Walth: That’s right. I was a reporter for the Oregonian, and I broke a story that described how Ross Island Sand & Gravel, which is owned by the Pamplin family, had allowed the Port of Portland to bury tons of toxic waste in the middle of the Ross Island lagoon. Anybody who crosses the Ross Island Bridge knows that location fairly well, and it set off a lot of controversy and produced a lot of stories about the environmental future of Ross Island. Robert Pamplin, Jr. was not pleased by those stories. He couldn’t find any factual faults in them, but he set out to respond in his own way, and he announced the launch of the Portland Tribune. He decided that he wanted to take the Oregonian on in many ways. Those stories were just, I guess, the impetus. And in 2001, he launched the Portland Tribune.

Miller: As a kind of revenge? Or at the very least to create his own megaphone?

Walth: I don’t think Pamplin ever used the paper as a megaphone per se. I think that, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he was really trying to come up with an alternative news outlet. He certainly was displeased with the paper’s coverage, but he never used it as a personal megaphone. The Portland Tribune, when it launched, was a very aggressive and competitive newspaper, great journalists working there. It really made a mark. And I think the record has shown that the Pamplin Media Group has taken news very seriously over the years, and that’s a testament really.

Miller: What was the Pamplin Media Group’s approach to the newspaper business at the beginning, and to taking on a very established paper in the Oregonian?

Walth: The Portland Tribune launched in 2001. It took a lot of money to launch it and I don’t think the Tribune ever did make money. The Pamplin family was quite wealthy. Robert Pamplin Jr. came from family wealth. I recall in the 1990s, Forbes magazine put their family wealth at about $500 million. And he sunk a lot of money into the paper. And as I said before, they were aggressive, they broke a lot of news. They gave the Oregonian a run for its money when it came to city coverage.

The other thing that Pamplin did that was really smart was he bought up a lot of the suburban newspapers. The Oregonian at that time was really trying to be competitive in news in suburban zones. Pamplin bought up I think virtually all of the local papers papers like Lake Oswego Review, West Linn Tidings, Wilsonville Spokesman, a lot of papers that people know today. And he basically created a ring around the city, if you will, and took on the Oregonian when it came to suburban coverage, and also competing for suburban advertising. The Oregonian, I’ll tell you, actually started a newspaper war with Pamplin out in Hillsboro and Forest Grove, and Pamplin won that fight. So there were a lot of victories for Pamplin Media Group.

Miller: We asked folks on Facebook what this news about newspapers might mean for them. We got a number of responses, we’re going to go through a couple over the course of this conversation.

Lucy Garrick wrote this: “I rely on local papers and other local media to hear about what’s going on in my neighborhood and town. Things that affect our everyday lives, like road closures, construction and local school events and such will likely not be covered in future. It’s never a good thing to narrow the variety of journalism, especially local stories. And it will be hardest on the older generations who don’t surf the internet. Local TV and radio stations have a limited capacity for local news and most are managed by national institutions.

“Most media outlets report the same news - The level of sensationalism seems to be the most common distinguishing factor and smaller, and often very important local stories get lost. Social media is a horrible alternative for news - much of the information is unverified and intentionally inaccurate. All that said, in Portland, where community values are still strong, someone may fill this vacuum.”

Brent, the newspaper business, as we’ve talked about on this show a lot over the years, faces a lot of challenges. But owner Robert Pamplin has been facing challenges of his own connected to his sand and gravel company. I should give Nigel Jaquiss at Willamette Week a hat tip here. He’s been doing a lot of research, a lot of reporting on this over the last two years. Can you just give us a quick sense for what he has uncovered in recent years?

Walth: Absolutely. The Pamplin family has wide ranging financial interests textile companies in the South, and the most prominent one in Portland is Ross Island Sand & Gravel and Nigel has done a lot of really great reporting essentially showing that Pamplin himself is under some financial stress. There have been unpaid taxes, and there’s questions about the funding of pensions. If you step back from Nigel’s reporting, I think you see potential cash flow problems going on there. And right around the time that Nigel started reporting on these stories, what I understand is that there was increasing financial stress within the Pamplin Media Group as well about three or four years ago. That coincided with COVID, of course. But I think the ramifications of the financial stress started to show on the newspapers.

Miller: Let’s turn to the sale of Pamplin. What can you tell us about Carpenter Media Group, the company that bought the Pamplin papers?


Walth: Well, I can tell you first that Pamplin has been up for sale for about a year. And I do know that the communications within the Pamplin Media Group were that the company was determined to sell to another company that would also value local news not a hedge fund, not a repeat of other large corporations that are more interested in diluting the product and scraping out whatever money they can. Carpenter Media Group is based, as you said, in Mississippi. They have a pretty good reputation of keeping a commitment to local news. With the purchase of Pamplin, they go up to 180 newspapers or news sites, with about 2,000 employees. They’re in states like Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana.

They also have gone on a bit of a buying spree. In March, they closed the deal to buy the Honolulu Star Advertiser. And that same month they purchased a company called Black Press Media, which is based in Canada, but owns about 40 publications both in Canada and in Washington State, including Seattle’s suburban areas Bellevue and Renton. So they have really increased the number of their publications just in a few months.

Miller: We reached out to Carpenter yesterday. We got no response. I haven’t seen carpenter company quotes besides ones from their Monday press release in any other articles by Oregon media. It doesn’t seem so far that they’re interested in talking to Oregon journalists. Do you have a sense based on the way they’ve run other papers around the country for how they might approach these new papers in their stable?

Walth: It’s a great question. It’s really hard to tell. I went on the site and tried to at least look at least most of the news sites, and they seem to primarily be online sites. I don’t know this for certain, but I think we might be looking at cessation of some of the print publications for at least some of the properties going forward. I know there’s a commitment or a desire to keep the reporting staff at Pamplin Media Group as much at full capacity as possible. I have not read that Carpenter has, when it’s taken over papers or news outlets, that it’s followed with layoffs. And hopefully that’s still the case here.

Miller: Some more comments from Facebook, Josh Steinhurst wrote: “Where it will really hurt is without local digging, many big stories that even the conservative Oregonian would run just won’t even be found, because it requires going to all the low-news meetings, reading between the lines of documents, etc.”

Faun Hosey though wrote: “Locally in Washington County, Pamplin wasn’t at city & county hearings to cover government issues, ‒ they might print a press release ‒ but their pages were chock full of high school sports and reports from police and fire calls. Sigh.”

I want to turn to EO Media, because this is at least as big a story that came out the same day. Can you give us the sense for the size of EO Media’s operations in Oregon?

Walth: EO has about a dozen or so newspapers in Oregon and Washington. They cover a big geographic area eastern Oregon, central Oregon primarily. In some ways, the news about EO is more troubling than Pamplin. We didn’t really see this coming. EO has been a stalwart media organization in the state. It’s fourth generation family ownership, long time commitment to local news. The East Oregonian in Pendleton, The Astorian in Astoria. In some ways they have a much bigger not just geographic footprint, but also journalism footprint, given the tradition and the commitment that EO has made to local coverage for decades.

Miller: How significant are the layoffs that they announced this week? I think more than two dozen positions ‒ do we know what kinds of positions are going to be eliminated?

Walth: We don’t. I’ve spoken to people at EO and they haven’t really said. I do know that the notices have gone out. I believe it’s 28 layoffs and 19 people will have their hours reduced. There hasn’t been any kind of disclosure about whether those are reporters or other kinds of employees. I think inevitably, in a company of that size, the newsrooms are gonna be affected.

I do know that the reduction in printing is really gonna be something that readers are gonna see everywhere, particularly in the areas that are affected. La Grande, the Hermiston paper, Wallowa County, Baker City. Those papers are ceasing print publications altogether and that’s gonna have a big effect in a very, very large geographic area.

Miller: Daniel Collay wrote: “EO media revived the shuttered Medford Mail Tribune as the Rogue Valley Times a couple years ago and has been doing an excellent job since. I learned today they will be reducing the print edition down to twice weekly which is unfortunate, but understandable. I hope they can survive and continue to provide real local journalism to the community.”

Those are two sets of big changes. A lot of print run reductions, and some scaling back of employees. Do you have a sense for what other changes might be on the table?

Walth: That’s a great question. The biggest change of all is that the company announced that the history of family ownership is probably coming to an end. And that’s tough. The reader just mentioned the Rogue Valley Times, which was launched by EO after Medford shut down. EO media rescued the Bend Bulletin out of bankruptcy. EO Media has been leading the way to help other rural newspapers. They have an organization called the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, which they call FORJ. I’ve seen them do great work around the state. I think they hope to continue that tradition. But the ownership of the company is probably gonna either fall into the hands of an outside company ‒ like what’s happening with Pamplin ‒ or the ownership is hoping that they might try a nonprofit structure. That will take a lot of work. Just changing the tax structure won’t necessarily bring in more money or cut costs, that’ll still have to happen. But the biggest change is that the family ownership will probably come to an end.

Miller: We’re long past the point., I think, of being surprised to see newspapers reducing print operations or struggling. We’re decades into this trend. But in the minute we have left, what stands out to you in the big picture when you take these two announcements together?

Walth: Well, the coincidence of the announcements is just that, they just all happen to come on the same day. But they send a larger message ‒ that if Oregonians value reliable local news, news that they know comes from people in their community, it’s verified, and there is still a local commitment, then they need to support that. We are at risk of losing a lot of that coverage, that in some ways the family ownership of EO and other companies like that have committed to, and even chains have committed to. That is the biggest concern and that’s the biggest common theme that I hear, I see coming through all of this, that local attention to what people care about in their communities is at risk.

Miller: Brent, thanks very much.

Walth: Your very welcome.

Miller: Brent Walth is now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon [and] a long time investigative reporter at The Oregonian and at Willamette Week.

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